In our world, it's been established for some time that you can use leaves, botanicals, bark, and other natural materials to influence the look and composition of the water to a certain extent. Of course, this makes perfect sense, because the stuff we play with interacts with water in so many ways.
This is accepted and understood, for the most part..
Well, as we discussed yesterday, some in the hobby/industry still ascribe all sorts of wonders to botanicals; I hope we have- and will continue- to dispel some of these myths about what we think they can do in favor of the more impressive reality about what they ARE capable of!
Which, we might add, is a lot!
One of the aspects of utilizing botanicals in our aquariums that we discuss, but can't think about enough, is their importance to the "microbiome" of the aquarium environment. A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)
Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent: We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-style aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.
Yeah, it's the "jumping off point" for one of my favorite speculative areas in our little hobby speciality:
With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle. In other words, does having a bunch of leaves and other botanical materials in the aquarium foster a larger population of these valuable organisms, capable of processing organics- thus creating a more stable, robust biological filtration capacity in the aquarium?
With a matrix of materials present, the bacteria (and their biofilms, as we've discussed a number of times here) have not only a "substrate" upon which to attach and colonize, but an "on board" food source which they can utilize as needed? Facultative bacteria, adaptable organisms which can use either dissolved oxygen or oxygen obtained from food materials such as sulfate or nitrate ions, would also be capable of switching to fermentation or anaerobic respiration if oxygen is absent.
We've talked about that before, right? And I'm not talking about this in regards to making kambocha, either! Botanical layers- particularly, leaf litter beds- in the wild, offer an interesting study in nutrient processing and food production for the surrounding aquatic ecosystems. And, although botanicals accumulate to significant depth in some areas, the processes which we are fascinated with even occur at surprisingly shallow depths...
One study of wild leaf litter beds in Amazonia indicated that the majority of the aerobic decomposition probably occurs in the upper 10 cm of the leaf litter bed, as lower material is more tightly packed, reducing O2 diffusion, and is generally older and already well decomposed. It is also thought that fermentation processes release acids (specifically, acetic acid), which help reduce the pH substantially within these beds.
So, we have biological processes occurring in botanical/leaf litter beds which a)facilitate nutrient processing in the habitat, b)contribute to the food chain, and c)potentially influence the chemical parameters of the water.
Obviously, there is some analogous processes and benefits which occur when leaves and botanicals create a similar bed in a closed aquarium...What exactly they are is still a subject of ongoing investigation for us as aquarists.
With so much emphasis placed on the appearance of our aquariums, it's interesting to remind ourselves from time to time that there are functional benefits of utilizing botanicals that go far beyond the pretty look.
There's a whole lot there to unpack- drawing from a variety of scientific fields, such as biology, chemistry, and ecology, as well as from our everyday practices as aquarists. It's not necessarily that we are creating a new "thing"- we're simply seeing a correlation to the processes that we are fostering in our aquariums and what occurs in nature, and realizing that we can embrace, study, and benefit from them in our aquarium work.
Just a little reminder; an invitation to do some more research on these potentially game-changing and utterly fascinating topics, which will have broad-reaching benefits for aquarists for decades to come.
And it all starts with, well- how best to put it? The littlest things!
Stay excited. Stay motivated. Stay curious. Stay intrigued. Stay engaged.
And Stay Wet.